The Defense of Parecon - A Response to 6 Critiques

Originally published here

This article, written by Real Utopia member, Nicolai Pulley, provides considered responses to 6 critiques of Parecon, refuting many of the criticisms made about Parecon and providing rebuttals.

Libertarian Communism

Steven Johns

...instead of abolishing wage labour proposes a "fair" way of allocating wages.

Parecon does not have wages or wage systems, because (A) remuneration is not determined by your bargaining power or supply & demand, and (B) money in its commodity form does not exist, and thus unlike capitalism it cannot be used as a method of remuneration.


Parecon advocates attempt to address [measuring effort & sacrifice] by peer-effort ratings, everyone filling out a form of some kind on their workmates, rating how much effort people have put in despite their natural talents or disabilities.

First, parecon does not make any clear description on what systems will be implemented aside from the larger structure; only that it lines up to a general area. As Albert explains (emphasis by me):

The precise methodology for doing this need not be the same from workplace to workplace. Adherence to the norm is what should be universal, not a particular specific approach to the nuts and bolts of implementation.

Along with this, assuming we reference Albert’s Parecon book in regards to effort ratings, he makes no clarification that we should abstract from natural talents or disabilities; in fact, the parecon system is made specifically to address these things and to avoid issues that come with not addressing them.


In the USSR, for example, instead of a mix of private and state employers in most countries, there was just one employer, the state.

As Bukharin describes in The Economic Structures of Soviet Russia, there actually was a mix of private & state employers.


As for the peer rating of effort: even in my current workplace, which doesn't have a particularly high level of workers' solidarity, if management introduced such a scheme we would just get together and decide collectively to all rate each other as highly as possible. That way we would all gain.

This issue is dealt with by the addition of a job complex committee, which oversees the job complexes of a participatory economy. If it notices that you have a higher-than-average rating compared to other worker councils in your federation, you would be given the option to work at other councils that have lower ratings to help balance the job complex you have.


Additionally, if effort and sacrifice is what is rewarded, then if your team comes up with some new equipment or new processes which make the work easier, then you would have to do keep [sic] them secret, in order not to have your pay reduced. And of course this would be highly detrimental to society as a whole - as a rational economy would be based on trying to minimise the amount of work and effort which would have to be done.

Your material gain is not affected in a participatory economy if there is a new innovation/invention; as Albert explains, a social recognition of your work is given instead of a material incentive.


Now, effort and sacrifice couldn't just be applied universally, as people have different abilities. Women who are pregnant, workers who might be smaller or weaker than others, people who have disabilities, or who are temporarily ill or injured might have to do putting [sic] more effort and time to have the same kind of output as other workers.

This is exactly how parecon speaks of effort & sacrifice; to say it doesn’t recognize such things as physical ailments or disabilities seems like a faltering strawman.


And aside from abilities, people have different preferences. For some working in an office all day would be unbearable, however for others manual labour would be much more onerous.

You are given the free opportunity to work wherever you please; the only requirement is that your job complex is balanced.


So if individuals' effort has to be assessed, it would have to be done so on the basis of their pre-existing abilities and preferences. Therefore I would just lie about mine. I would just say I had depression or whatever so even turning up for work in the first place would be a huge effort on my part, let alone actually doing anything when I'm there. And writing stuff up? I'm not very good at that, I'm dyslexic. And lifting? I'm very weak, and I have a bad back. Working long hours? I get migraines. Working indoors? I'm claustrophobic. Working outdoors? You guessed it, agoraphobic…

As mentioned before, your job complex would still have to be balanced, so even if you were to lie about so much you would still need to find labor that at least suited whatever ailments you had.


Many employers today talk about that kind of objective measure, however, many of us workers do not have any sort of tangible output to our work which can be measured. How do you measure the "output" of a nurse, or a doctor, or a bus driver, or an educator?

Parecon’s political economy specifically addresses this, especially in A Quiet Revolution in Welfare Economics.


For those people who doubt the seriousness of this problem, I would suggest reading the texts I linked to in my first article going into the chronic inefficiency of the Soviet Union. Where production for planning targets basically meant that quality dropped. And faulty equipment sabotaged the entire economy.

It would be impossible to compare parecon and the Soviet Union in terms of planning, as the USSR performed central planning, while parecon advocates for a type of decentral planning. Again, to say that they can be compared seems like a strawman.


Advocates of parecon... believe that we do need to be coerced into being productive by wages and the threat of being denied them if we do not work long hard enough [sic].

This is, again, a strawman because of the nonexistence of wages and the fact that remuneration according to need is implemented outside of labor.


The Work versus Productive Activity section gets into a screeching halt on the fact that Johns is anti-work, while Albert seems to not be aware of the position. I won’t explain my thoughts on anti-work, but it seems pointless to argue with Albert about this if it becomes obvious that he isn’t aware of anti-work and its positions.


Rory Reid continues to make use of a (modified) market…

Parecon is not a market, as consumers & producers use a socially-determined plan as a guide for what they consume & produce. This is in contrast to a market, where production & consumption is not planned in conjunction with each other.


People who choose not to work earn no shares (not even dole) and don't eat.

This is patently false and in opposition to parecon’s support of remuneration according to need outside of economic activity.


Consider the vast effort that would need to go into making trillions of calculations of this kind in a more or less endless round of price- and wage-setting.

As Hahnel shows in Democratic Economic Planning, the price-setting function of participatory planning would only take 6-7 turns with what he says is around the population of Sweden.


Pareconomists say this: "In parecon, everyone gets a share of income based on the effort and sacrifice they expend in work" (Yes, Boss). Or this: "There is no way to aggrandize self or a group without benefiting everyone. For me to get ahead, the total product must grow or I have to expend more effort and sacrifice, which is fair enough." The capitalist says: "If I work hard and increase the total wealth in the world, why shouldn't I get ahead, you benefit too." Well yes, but now you're rich and powerful and we're not.

I fail to see how the analogy sticks, as parecon is self-managed and capitalism is not, and thus won’t acknowledge this.


In an FAQ about 'dissent', a pareconomist explained that if you had a dissenting view from the majority, you still might be able to persuade your local producer federation to give you the means to express your dissent through, say, a radical magazine, if they thought dissent was useful to society. Might they be persuaded by propaganda, bribery or threats?

You would still require someone to publish the propaganda in order for it to work in this scenario, and that can go down a daisy chain of asking producer councils to make propaganda to convince other producer councils. Bribery would be impossible, as you cannot transfer remuneration between people. As for threats, I have no comment.


"Entrepreneurs like me can run your schools more efficiently than the education federations!" Pareconomists have no ideological defence against such a proposal. They simply say, "If it's true, society benefits so let him do it. If it's not true, society will find him out and take away his right to run the school". Yeah, sure! The ability of 'society' to reclaim badly-used resources from their 'owners' or 'users' is entirely dependent on the power of ordinary people versus the power of the owning and managerial classes.

I will not address this either, as it seems to still rest on the assumption that parecon is a market.


Suppose I had taken the prudent step of saying: "I can provide national security and personal protection at half-price. Let me run your army and police force" first? After all, that's what the first monarchs, priests and chieftains did. What then?

Aside from the fact that there won’t be an army or police at least as we know it, we can test-run your claim by doing something small scale; a city police force or something similar. If you succeed, we can start to ramp up the scale, and if not, you don’t get permission.


The federations exist, in part, to get the highest price they can for their member's labor.

I genuinely have 0 clue where they could’ve gotten this claim.


Pareconomists tend to argue that the political and economic spheres would be largely separate.

This flies directly in the face of complementary holism, which says that although they may be distinct, they may not appear separate. Perhaps wording in parpolity as described by Stephen Shalom might’ve been messed up; however, this is minor in comparison to the constant recognition by parecon that politics & economics intermingle a lot.


The sole mechanism of control is our participation. which to work is made obligatory on all people[.]

You are not required all the time to attend meetings; if it does not apply to you, then you’re not required to be there. Along with this, you may stay for as long as you like. All parecon needs is just some certain amount of participation from you; no more, and no less.


The chief problem with parecon is that it is reformist and ignores the lessons of history.

Most advocates of parecon want a dual structure type of transition, not a reformist one. This is a blatant strawman.

Market Socialism/Inclusive Democracy

Takis Fotopoulos

At the outset, it has to be made clear that Parecon, unlike Inclusive Democracy, is not a political project about an alternative society, with its own analysis of present society, an overall vision of a future society and a strategy and tactics that will move us from here to there.

Actually, it is; although parecon on its own specifically focuses on the economy, not only does the overall philosophy (complementary holism) advocates for a potential future society, but also the possible avenues for how to change is discussed quite a bit albeit not often, and recently Albert has started writing a short book on the transition to a participatory society.


Parecon is simply an economic model for an alternative economy and as such does not feature any political, cultural and broader social institutions. The explanation given for this is that ‘models for such institutions still await development’ (Par 288). However, given that the Parecon model was developed well over a decade ago, one can hardly accept this explanation.

This is more of a case of bad timing; the essay that first describes parpolity from Stephen Shalom was published 10 months after Fotopoulos’ comment here.


A more plausible explanation is that the issue of political and other institutions, and particularly the crucial issue of whether Parecon is compatible with a state (even of the ‘workers’ state’ variety) is left deliberately vague in the hope of uniting the entire broad left behind the Parecon proposal: from statist socialists to libertarian ones and from anarchists to supporters of the new social movements (Greens, feminists, gays and so on).

Although parecon does accept a variety of social movements, the idea that it would accept state socialists is a strange one given parecon’s constant criticism of central planning.


...the general impression one gets from reading Parecon is that many (if not most) decision-taking bodies in this scheme are policy-making bodies of representatives rather than administrative councils of delegates.

What a participatory society uses is a liquid democracy, which may explain why certain passages sound more like representation at times and more like delegation at times.


...the Parecon model, consistent with its attitude not to take stands on the crucial issue of whether the society implied by Parecon is a stateless one or not, does not define who is the arbiter for the inevitable disputes between decision-taking bodies (unless, of course Albert assumes, very ‘democratically’, that in his society there is no space for such dissent!). Is it the federation of workers councils or that of consumers councils or both? If both, whose view prevails in case there is a conflict between the two —something that could easily happen, even if we strictly define responsibilities for each decision-taking body?

Aside from the fact that its made clear that parecon is a stateless economy, something like the council courts that Shalom describes for parpolity can be utilized to help settle potential user issues if it became large enough. However, overall it would be settled between and/or within councils.


However, the dual council structure proposed by Parecon, instead of creating an all round personality of citizen as citizen who expresses the general interest, enhances the market economy’s division of people as consumers and workers, and inevitably leads to the creation of particular interests, which potentially may come in conflict with each other, as we mentioned above. In other words, people as workers may have conflicting ideas, views and possibly even interests with people as consumers, and the dualism between workers and consumers councils enhances competition between them.

I’m honestly unsure of how this would arise within a participatory society unless there were people that were only workers and people who were only consumers. Even then, the method of pricing parecon utilizes within participatory planning is explicitly made to help people have better relations with each other, within or out of the workplace.


This conception is of course completely alien to Parecon’s vision that adopts an "instrumentalist" view of people (exactly as liberals and socialist statists do).

This is in contradiction to the substantial amount of work criticizing the instrumentalist view and elaborating on a political economy that recognizes people as “humans of praxis”.


Even where job complexes are feasible, people with higher training, skills, talent, etc., may still dominate the decision process because of their ‘authority’, aptly described by April Carter. Given the differences in training, experience, natural skills and so on, it is almost impossible to create ‘comparably empowering work lives’ simply by introducing job complexes, as Albert and Hahnel assume, so that ‘everyone participating in a council has sufficient confidence, skill, knowledge and energy to have equal opportunities to influence council outcomes’. In other words, although it is true that the division between manual and conceptual work is significant in creating hierarchical divisions, it will be simplistic to assume that this is the only cause of them.

I fail to see how balanced job complexes giving equal amounts of empowering & disempowering tasks, which would allow people to get a wide variety of information about the workplace and explicitly takes into account the differences in experience, would give rise to a domination of the process.


However, job complexes do not give an answer to the question of what will happen if in a society, say, 40 per cent of young people like to be involved in job complexes centred around some form of art activity, which is not unlikely, particularly if there are no incentives for other job complexes centred around more boring or hard tasks (e.g. accounting and building respectively).

That would be up to the future society to figure out, as this seems to be a fairly specific scenario.


The ‘solution’ Albert gives is the classical capitalist one: ‘like any other job, people apply for the jobs in these fields and if more people want jobs than there are openings, slots are filled based on merit, etc., and if anyone wants to participate in the activity despite not being chosen they are free to do so but as a hobby without remuneration’. However, this amounts to a denial of freedom of choice as regards work, in a similar way as under the present or the planned systems.

It seems strange to say that if you do something outside of what you are expected to do in the sense of a hobby or so, then you shouldn’t expect any remuneration. Saying that it is the “classical capitalist” answer also disregards the drastic differences between capitalism and parecon regarding the choice people have for labor.


...the question remains what happens in case the services of a particular citizen are not required in a specific line of activity, either because the demand for this activity falls, or because the citizen is unwilling to work, or is antisocial, etc.? In the present system, as well as in Parecon, such employees will have to be sacked, or compulsorily transferred to a similar or perhaps a different line of activity.

In terms of demand falling, Fotopoulos ignores not only that the transfer to another job is made with everyone in mind and the person in question is given a wide variety of options to choose from, but that the need to transfer jobs would be rare (especially involuntarily!). Along with this, Albert doesn’t really touch on the problem of the anti-social/unwilling worker in ParEcon like how he says it does.


...job complexes are feasible only as long as we do not refer to highly specialised jobs (surgeons, opticians, hearing consultants, pilots, etc.), or jobs requiring particular talents (musicians, dancers, actors, and so on).

As Albert describes in Looking Forward:

The real issue is most workers, not a few exceptional talents. But I do believe that the argument applies even to the most extreme cases. For by adopting the principle that everyone does a balanced complex we tap an important human potential in the great majority that would otherwise lie dormant if they only did rote work. Moreover, by creating respectful, egalitarian environments, we reduce the waste associated with elites trying to defend their position. The time that goes into class warfare can be enormous, and even the most exceptional scientist may benefit from a more egalitarian environment. Her total scientific contribution may increase even if some time that might have gone to research goes to less creative labors so long as time and emotional energy that now goes into defending status and dealing with bureaucracies no longer has to. And if this isn't so for some genius, then society could choose to grant a special dispensation every so often.


When lives depend on surgeons abilities, for instance, and it is highly unlikely that in any society they will be in abundance…, it will be a tremendous social waste to ask them to do some cleaning of hospital corridors, or even do simple manual work (keeping computer records and the like), let alone do work in other workplaces (community work, etc.), so that some balance between job tasks could be achieved!

It seems strange to disagree with the idea that a surgeon should do his fair share of boring work. It also seems to assume that there would be some interruption between a surgery and the surgeon’s job complex, which I can assure wouldn’t happen as there is such a thing as scheduling.


Question: even if we assume that the education system provides such a broad range of knowledge so that everybody could be an expert in designing, proofreading, typesetting, etc., could anyone seriously assume that the education system would provide everybody with adequate knowledge so that she could adequately assess submissions in a variety of knowledge fields, each of which requires years of study on each own —from literature up to politics, sociology, etc.?

As Albert explains again in Looking Forward:

...while everyone needn't learn everything, we all need to learn how to make plans, coordinate activities, and weigh alternatives. We won't all do these things equally well, but we will all do them well enough to bring our own particular experiences and insights to bear on decision making, especially regarding our own circumstances, which we do inevitably know best. Even you think everyone should learn to read despite the undeniable fact that some will do it faster and with more comprehension. I want the same for conceptual work and decision-making, that's all. People get different pleasure from many important things because they have slightly different dispositions or prepare differently or even have different capacities. But for sex or sports we don't say that only the "best" should participate. That should be true for using one's head too.


As regards basic needs in particular, Albert follows the socialdemocratic rather than the anarcho-communist tradition and instead of proposing satisfaction according to need (as the ID project does) he declares, first, that particular consumption needs such as health care or public parks will be free to all (Par 117) and, second, that as regards special needs, people will be able to make particular requests for needbased consumption to be addressed case by case by others in the economy.

This is in complete contradiction to Albert explicitly saying that remuneration according to need isn’t mutually exclusive with remuneration according to effort/sacrifice.


The first important characteristic of this model that one notices is that it hides its crucial choices under the pseudo-scientific cover of orthodox economics, which is mostly adopted without hesitation —despite the obvious contradiction involved in proposing a radical model which is based on the orthodox economics theoretical tools.

Please read The Political Economy of Participatory Economics and A Quiet Revolution in Welfare Economics. These two deal with the idea that parecon uses neoclassical economics without question.


...although in a scarce society social waste should, as far as possible, be minimized, this does not mean that we have to adopt the orthodox conception of efficiency, which was also adopted by the central planners, exactly because they shared the same objective as the capitalist West, particularly as far as the maximisation of economic growth is concerned. Thus, efficiency is defined in both systems on the basis of narrow techno